TV Guide is shining a spotlight on select 2019 Emmy nominees to showcase the best performances and TV work of the year. To read more profiles and check out our complete Emmys coverage, please go here.
Giancarlo Esposito knows Gus Fring; he's been playing the impeccably dressed drug kingpin for a decade now, since the character debuted in Breaking Bad's second season in 2009. But Esposito is still thinking about him: teasing apart his backstory, unpacking his relationship with religion. His dedication to the character is paying off. Esposito, who was first nominated for an Emmy in 2012 for his work in Breaking Bad, landed his second Emmy nomination this year for his performance as Gus in Better Call Saul.
Fans of the prequel series won't be surprised by the episode Esposito is submitting to highlight his work in the AMC drama's fourth season. "Piñata" features a standout five-minute monologue delivered by Gus to his nemesis, Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis), while Hector lies in a hospital bed recovering from a stroke — a recovery Gus deliberately halted by dismissing Hector's doctor in the middle of his treatment. Hammering home his ruthless intentions, Gus spins a story for an unresponsive Hector, telling him about a lucuma tree he tended as a child until it bore fruit the family could sell. When a coati helped itself to the fruit, a young Gus waited past dark to catch the creature, which he kept alive, like Hector, to torment it.
Esposito commands the scene, though — like Gus — he remains aware of his partner in that hospital room. "Mark Margolis is a wonderful foil for this particular storyline, in Breaking Bad and now also in Better Call Saul. Even though he's lying there in the bed, he's very alive for me," he told TV Guide.
The actor was honored to be given the opportunity to tell such a "beautiful yet disturbing" tale. "The less I say sometimes, in this character, the more you're going to feel and understand about him," Esposito said. "So this monologue was a wonderful gift to me, if I were able to pull it off in the right way."
TV Guide spoke to Esposito, who is currently filming Better Call Saul's fifth season, about the show-stopping monologue — including the actor's own serendipitous encounter with a coati — and facing off against his co-star, Jonathan Banks, in the same Emmy category.
What stood out to you about this episode for Gus?
Giancarlo Esposito: To me, significantly, a part of Gus's character is the revenge he's seeking against Hector Salamanca, and the pain that he feels in his loss of Max Arciniega many years before. ... It's giving Hector a look at his personality, into who he is, into how hard and how long he worked to get where he is today, and how Hector took away someone that was his dream and someone that he loved. I like this episode because it lies in an emotional place of almost spirit, because Gus is speaking to this man, and he knows the man can't answer, but he weaves this whole story — which happens to be true — about himself, to be revelatory not only to us as an audience but also to his nemesis.
What do you think Gus's story says about him as a person and as a character?
Esposito: Many indelible things happen to us as children that we sometimes shake off and sometimes we forget. Sometimes we're able to work through them in a way that strengthens us. I think he's telling Hector that he's fierce and that that fierceness grew out of how he had to live and scrape to survive, and that he's allowing him to know that he's going to feel Gus's wrath before he dies, he's going to feel this pain. It's brutal, but it is also a part of life. I think he tells him the story of his survival for [Hector] to know that he's not going to win. It's, in a way, a mind game as well. I think human beings are so very complicated, Gustavo Fring certainly is one of the most complicated villains ever on television, but he wants us to know that he will stop at nothing. But you also see a part of him that's fair and even, and I believe it's not unjust that Hector is in the position that he is.
There are so many details I love in this monologue, like the way you say the fruit tasted like caramel. Were there any moments in the monologue that you remember especially wanting to savor or any lines you wanted to make sure stood out?
Esposito: The caramel line certainly is one, because it references so much of Gus's history as a cook and a chef and also a foodie, in regard to not only serving at Los Pollos Hermanos, but also that he's a foodie on a whole other level. So when he speaks about how sweet that fruit is, that moment to me was really key, because there were some folks on the set who just love my pronunciation of that word and thought it conjured up not only the sweet taste of caramel but also the smell. It was a sensory perception. ... If you can imagine that animal — which I did in my backyard, when I was preparing for this speech in Austin, Texas. I was sitting in the backyard at night, on a small back porch off my bedroom, reading my lines and looking at it, thinking about it, and I saw this animal on my fence. And I was like, How could this possibly be? It was a coati. ... It was the exact animal that I was speaking about in this monologue. So that was an inspiration to me, and I followed it around my yard, and it ambled to the front yard, jumped off the fence and crossed the road, and went into someone else's yard. It was absolutely huge.
I realized, Oh, the story had more merit when the animal was ferocious, but Gus, even as a boy, knew that he had to do what he had to do. You could imagine from the monologue, if you filled in the blanks, you could imagine his bleeding hands, his bleeding arms, and then he made that coati suffer. He kept it alive! Even with a broken limb. This is what he's trying to really get through to Hector, that I'll keep you alive as long as possible, as long as you're able to suffer for your sin. So in a way it's almost very religious and very spiritual, because what do we have to do? We have to give penance in the Catholic Church. I was an altar boy, I was almost a priest, so I often look at things through different lenses, you know: If we pay for it then we're OK. It made me think about Gus in a different way. Does he do all this and then go to confession? Wow, does anyone ever think of that? All these things we still don't know about him, but yet he's willing to exact his revenge in a horrific, brutal, horrible, and very slow fashion because it is deserved. If you weigh that animal taking the fruit of this tree away from all they had to eat, then it's deserved, because we have to survive. So in a way it's very human. What I love about this episode is even though he is not involved in a two-way conversation, he really is. He's questioning the humanity of his own self and justifying his actions through the act of survival, which is also human. Fascinating stuff, man!
You already know how Gus's story ends, but did anything in this episode or this monologue change how you approach playing Gus at this point in his life?
Esposito: No. Well, look, Gus is going to walk into the fire just like he does with the coati, so if that's any indication of what happens to him in the end... This coati monologue is very telling: what's boiling under revenge, what that driving force is, how sweet that revenge is. And when that gets exacted, is it as sweet as you thought it would be? In Gus's case I can't imagine it would be. Everything gets explosive very quickly and is over. But I think there are points in this fourth season where you see what Gus will become, and maybe you see that he's not going to stop. He's too obsessed with revenge. He really misses Walter White's genius. [Laughs]
How do you keep Gus interesting even as we learn more about him when so much of his menace comes from when he's silent?
Esposito: I feel like to keep him interesting, you've got to keep him in the present, in the moment. ... Mike (Jonathan Banks) and I have some moments in Season 4 that are particularly great when Mike disagrees with me, and we have a moment where, Ooh, wait a minute, are these guys going to take each other out right now? And we know that doesn't happen, because you know the story of Breaking Bad, but if we're present in the moment, you should feel that that could happen and change our whole story. To me, that's the key. Keep them alive, keep them fresh. Never play the iconic Gus — that word is often used for this character, and I feel honored that it is, but I have to forget it.
How do you think Gus is different in Better Call Saul than he is in Breaking Bad?
Esposito: There's a slight vulnerability about him. I think he has to let go, and through his hatred for Hector he's letting go of the idea that people can change a great deal. I think Gus is someone who sees people's potential, but will they actually live up to that potential? I'd like to see him believe they still can, but to watch that fade away, and for him to realize that people like Mike are the most valuable to him. Mike's not trying to find himself. He knows who he is, he's accepted that. And therefore he doesn't let himself get in the way of doing the job.
What's it like working with Jonathan Banks, your fellow nominee in the Supporting Actor in a Drama category?
Esposito: I'm so proud to share the screen with him, and I'm so happy that he got a nomination, because his work in Saul has certainly expanded from Breaking Bad, in terms of what he gets to play, and the different colors of this human being who's struggling with himself. ... I give him such a standing ovation for his work, and every time we come on set together we have respect for what we're doing and for each other, so sparks fly.
Do you have any Emmy rituals or good luck charms?
Esposito: Every time it's different. I feel deep, deep gratitude that I've even been nominated; we have a great cast member this year who was not, Rhea Seehorn. It was probably the season of her character, and the season of her life, and she did not get a nomination, so not to compare that with mine, but I honor her. ... I feel like I've already won. The one thing I do is I visualize [the Emmys ceremony], I hold my little lucky mala bracelets, I'm always praying or wishing for good luck. I don't have a rabbit's foot, although now I'm thinking maybe I should go out and get one because I used to love rabbits' feet. But I think good thoughts. It's already written, in many ways. The voters vote. It's in an envelope. It's already known to the universe; we just don't know, right? [Laughs] Maybe I should get a couple of shrunken heads, maybe that'd be very Gus Fring, too.
Better Call Saul Seasons 1-3 are currently available to stream on Netflix.